DRAMA

Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo

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Over a long night driving around Los Angeles in a taxi, two strangers get to know each other better than either ever wanted. Behind the wheel is Max (Foxx), an under-achiever who has been a cabbie for 12 years. His passenger is Vincent (Cruise), an accomplished hitman who has recruited the cabdriver at gunpoint to chauffeur him on his lethal rounds.

Collateral is thrillingly absorbing, at least until late in the movie. The two main characters keep surprising each other—and viewers—as each man's weaknesses and strengths are revealed. Their long night's journey includes plenty of colorful detours, such as when Vincent announces that he's ahead of schedule and suggests swinging by a jazz club, where the assassin reveals himself to be a Miles Davis aficionado. Director Michael Mann (Heat) masterfully plays multiple notes here himself, creating a lush, fascinatingly syncopated melody of a movie, which makes it all the more disappointing that Collateral's windup is thuddingly conventional. One expects, and wants, better from this film.

Cruise, his gray hair matching the hue of his snazzy suit, brings snap to his first shot at playing a hissable bad guy. His Vincent is a killer unbothered by what he does, which Cruise conveys with a shrugging, existentialist humor that is chilling. Foxx is even better as Collateral's Everyman, perfectly balancing his character's fright and fight. (For more on Cruise and Foxx, see p. 73.) (R)

DRAMA

Blanchard Ryan, Daniel Travis

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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In this humdinger of a fish tale, a couple find themselves stalked by sharks—hungry ones. Susan (Ryan) and Daniel (Travis), a quarrelsome but loving pair vacationing on an unnamed tropical island, are left behind in the ocean—every diver's worst nightmare—after their scuba excursion boat heads back to shore without them. The film, inspired by a true story, taps into the deep-seated fears of any moviegoer raised on Jaws but seems even scarier than that classic soggy shocker because the sharks in this low-budget effort are all real, not animatronic.

Water, though, is more than a mere Jaws wannabe. Leanly written and directed by Chris Kentis, the film features few closeups of rapacious sharks sharpening their choppers. Rather, Water focuses on showing how the imperiled couple react to their plight and how their relationship holds up under the threat of imminent death. Call this a thinking person's shark movie—but still be afraid. (R)

THRILLER

Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver

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Memo to M. Night Shyamalan: Enough with interviewers and critics comparing you to Hitchcock. The only thing you and the master of suspense share is a propensity for making cameos in your own movies.

Your latest, The Village, reveals that you're stuck in a rut as a writer and director. From The Sixth Sense through Signs, your films rely on the Big Twist, that moment when you pull the rug out from under viewers. The problem is that the underwhelming surprise in Village can be guessed early on, and when it does come, the movie, though involving enough up to that point, deflates faster than a punctured tire.

The film is set in an isolated 19th-century village where town elders warn residents to stay out of the woods because fearsome creatures lurk there. This may be a post-9/11 allegory about the lengths one goes to to protect loved ones and country, but it plays like an episode of The Twilight Zone with an inflated budget. As a thinker, you're dime-store deep.

What works? Howard (the daughter of director Ron) impresses with a confident performance as the blind heroine. There are also strong portrayals by Phoenix, Weaver and William Hurt. But how did you ever talk Brody into playing the babbling Village idiot? Good for your marquee, bad for his career. (PG-13)

HORROR

>NEIL PATRICK HARRIS

Neil Patrick Harris, 31, the former child star once known as Doogie Howser, M.D., has a memorable turn in the munchie-quest comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle as a former child star named...Neil Patrick Harris.

ON PLAYING HIMSELF I was already written into the script when they sent it to me. I was flattered. And I thought it was hilarious. It's Dude, Where's My Car? in Jersey. I play a character named Neil Patrick Harris. He's like me tripped out on Ecstasy—a wilder version of me. I have to say, riding around in a Jeep with a couple of hot strippers isn't a bad way to make a living. I could do worse.

ON WHAT HIS REAL LIFE IS LIKE I'm enjoying my 30s. I feel like I know where I'm going. And I like where I'm going. I went skydiving with some friends on my 31st birthday [in June]. The first time I went was the day I turned 21, so it was like coming full circle. It was amazing. You can't beat the feeling.

ON RECENTLY STARRING IN BROADWAY'S TONY-WINNING ASSASSINS I played this balladeer, singing about presidential assassins. He's the voice of reason, calm and cool. But then there's a dark, dramatic metamorphosis, and he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald. I'm very, very proud of this show. And it almost didn't happen. We were already rehearsing when 9/11 happened, and that almost killed it. It was too dark. But it was so smart, so provocative.

ON THE DOOGIE LEGACY I was 16 when I did that show. It gave me a lot of financial freedom at a very young age. And I'm certainly not embarrassed by it. It has a bit of a cult following. They should do a DVD. They've done one for practically everything else. But I've done enough as an actor in the past decade that people [shouldn't] remember me as just Doogie.

Code 46

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Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton (above) star in a dreamlike romance set in a near future in which travel is severely restricted. Robbins's married insurance investigator falls for Morton's forger.The plot is confusing, but the movie looks great, working better on a sensual than a making-sense level. Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People) directed. (R)

She Hate Me

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Director-cowriter Spike Lee strikes out with this overly busy satire about a young corporate executive (Anthony Mackie) in New York City who, after losing his job in an Enron-like business scandal, resorts to providing paid stud service for lesbians (including Dania Ramirez, near right, and Kerry Washington) hoping to get pregnant. Lee shoots at too many targets here, missing most of them. Woody Harrelson and Ellen Barkin costar. (R)

The Manchurian Candidate

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Don't miss director Jonathan Demme's smart, updated remake of the classic 1962 political thriller. Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep star. (R)

Little Black Book

    



Almost makes one long for Gigli. Brittany Murphy (left), batting her lashes like an automatic garage door gone haywire, annoyingly plays a woman intent on tracking down her beau's ex-girlfriends in this excruciating, laugh-free comedy. (PG-13)

  • Contributors:
  • Leah Rozen,
  • Sona Charaipotra.